SMITHFIELD — The file room at the Johnston County Department of Social Services is cramped but no longer crowded.
Shelves that were once full of file boxes are nearly empty, and on Tuesday, the state’s new secretary of health and human services learned why: Less paperwork is one benefit of a new computerized record-keeping system.
“You’re in the home stretch here,” said Aldona Wos, the new secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Resources. “The shelves are almost empty.”
The new system, dubbed NC FAST, will be online throughout North Carolina by March 22. So far, DHHS has allocated more than $27 million to digitize food and nutrition program records. It’s part of an effort to make record keeping more efficient.
Over the next few years, DHHS plans to digitize other records, including those of Medicaid and Child Protective Services.
But some counties deploying the new technology are experiencing growing pains. In Wake County – where NC FAST became fully operational this month – the typical wait time between applying and receiving food and nutrition benefits is now more than a month.
Elizabeth Scott, director of adult economic services in Wake County, said the department’s standard is supposed to be no more than 30 days. “We certainly are not doing that 100 percent of the time now,” she said. “We have more overdue applications than we did in the past.”
Still, advocates of digital records say they will make dispersing benefits more efficient in the long run. Reducing paperwork, for example, makes it easier for employees to pull up and make changes to files.
Earl Marett is director of the Johnston County Department of Social Services, one of four counties that piloted NC FAST. He said the new record-keeping system would provide substantial cost savings to local governments in the long term.
“Obviously, you can’t keep hiring people and building buildings,” he said.
Last summer, Johnston and three other counties – Guilford, Catawba and Carteret – began the process of switching completely from paper to digital records for their food and nutrition programs.
Marett said the transition has been a success, despite some setbacks. The county spent $75,000 on overtime pay and temporary workers to make the switch happen. It also experienced some delays as employees got used to the new system; signs in the lobby asked clients to be patient as DSS made the transition.
But Marett said digital record keeping is easier for new employees to learn than the old paper system. It used to take 12 and 18 months to adequately train a new hire; now it takes closer to three. Paper files also got lost or misplaced frequently, a problem the department no longer has.
But the new system does have a key drawback for clients. People receiving food aid have to be recertified every three to six months. In other words, they must regularly show they meet the eligibility requirements by submitting records of income and expenses, including copies of pay stubs and household bills.
The new system is also less forgiving of turning in paperwork late. In the past, an employee could accept a client’s late paperwork and add it easily to the paper file. This can be done in NC FAST, but it’s more difficult.
“People need to make sure get their paperwork in on time,” said Julie Henry, a DHHS spokeswoman. “The new system is a little less yielding in the procrastination factor.”
One of NC FAST’s touted benefits is that it can quickly determine who’s eligible for aid and who’s not. Eventually, Henry said, people will be able to sit down with a counselor, “have their names entered into our system and find out what they’re eligible for.”
Scott, of Wake County, dismisses concerns that the new technology places too much decision-making power in the hands of a computer program. The software follows the same guidelines as its human operator. In borderline cases, Scott said, her department will let the employee make the call.
“There’ll always be situations here and there where you know there’s something wrong with the system – that this person should be eligible,” she said. “But that’s not the majority of cases.”
Whatever the potential pitfalls, DHHS officials are set on replacing paper records with digital ones. They want Medicaid to be on the system by 2014, with other benefit programs to follow.
At some point, Wos said, she’d like child-abuse investigators in one county to be able to bring up a records from another county – all on a laptop or iPad while in the field.
For now, she said, “this is a small step in the right direction.”